El Arish adjusts to life under Egyptian control

Peace has come to this capital of the Egyptian Sinai, but it has come with all the rumble and dislocation of the 1967 Israeli tank assault that ushered in 12 years of military occupation.

The poorest of El Arish's people remain, in the grand tradition of three decades of Arab-Israeli suffering, pawns in a game of governments.m

No one in this ancient trading oasis lapped by the Mediterranean longs for a resumption of the Israeli occupation. That ended a year ago with a triumphant visit by the man tattered seaside posters still proclaim "the Hero of Peace," Egyptian President Anwar Sadat.

But many, such as a farmer named Muhammad, grew up, married, had children under Israeli rule. They learned Hebrew (some children know the Israeli tongue better than their "native" Arabic). And they learned "coexistence," of a sort, before their President made it official.

El Arish shopkeepers made money from a steady stream of tourists from Israel. And as many as 5,000 persons in a town barely six times that size worked inside Israel -- underpaid by Israeli standards, overpaid by Egyptian.

They are, quite literally, paying for the Arab-Israeli conflict's first formal peace.

The Egyptians, with considerable success, now have barred El Arish laborers from crossing into Israel to work.

Poverty, more than peace, molds the life view of these Egyptians. Their memory of the evils of occupation seems short, their memory of the benefits seems longer.

With almost professorial detachment, Muhammad tells of the Israeli settlers who seized the olive groves of his father and dozens of other El Arish farmers after 1967; of how the Israelis moved into the Egyptians' stone houses; and of the final page of occupation a dozen years later, one year ago.

"The Israelis [at the settlement of Neot Sinai, just outside town] filled in all the wells before leaving. They destroyed the irrigation equipment. They ripped the insides out of my father's house and from the others they took over to live in," he recounts, his narrative subsequently confirmed by Western and Israeli experts familiar with El Arish.

"There was almost nothing to come back to.

"Before, I worked picking fruit in Israel," Muhammad goes on in fluent Hebrew , his voice more animated. "I left after they took our land. I worked there for 11 years, making 250 Israeli pounds [then about $8] a day. . . . Now I make almost nothing."

President Sadat is struggling to change that, to build a prosperous, yet undilutedly Egyptian, El Arish. The result: Muhammad and others of the poorest in a town that never was rich find themselves caught in an undeclared Egyptian-Israeli "war" for the hearts, minds, and pocketbooks of a people first Egyptian, then under Israeli control, now Egyptian again.

With money and volunteers from the Mennonite central committee in the United States, the Egyptian government is resettling Muhammad and other farmers on the land taken from them by the Israeli settlers. Wells and irrigation networks are , very slowly, going back into operation.

A housing development, named for President Sadat's home village of Mit Abul Qom in the Nile delta, is going up nearby as part of a government effort to alleviate a severe housing shortage for the poor.

Egyptian companies -- again, very slowly -- are beginning to hire El Arishans who paid for liberation with their jobs.

Prices, boosted under Israeli occupation, are easing downward, if not quickly enough for men like Muhammad.

Fruit and vegetables now come from Egypt, not Israel. That means they generally are cheaper, although eggplant was inexplicably going for twice the Cairo price. That also means that in El Arish, as elsewhere in Egypt, commodities sometimes are in short supply.

With all this, as the local Egyptian governor told reporters just after the Israelis had left, El Arish is undergoing a kind of reverse "brainwashing" as the town is rewelded to Egypt.

Mr. Sadat fired the governor in May, perhaps because the "brainwashing" had proved so ineffective.

At first, numbers of El Arishans had continued to sneak into Israel to work, crossing with Bedouin caravans. Some were caught by the Israelis, turned over to the Egyptians, and promptly threatened with jail sentences.

"But some of us still cross," said a man at a crowded El Arish cafe. "What choice do we have?"

A large moustachioed man waiting on tables says he can sympathize. "I made three times what I'm making now. I used to work in the Israeli governor's office. Sure, I'm glad the Israelis are gone and that there is peace. But it's hard."

"Shalom, shalom," chirps a pair of waist-high children nearby, using the traditional Israeli greeting.

A taxi driver, at first insistent that he did not speak Hebrew, finally rattles off in the Israeli tongue: "Give my regards to the pretty girls in Tel Aviv."

Do you want the Israeli occupation back? "No," comes the reply from El Arishan after El Arishan.

"We have our land now. We are Egyptian," explains one shopkeeper. "A neighbor of mine was detained seven times by the Israelis just for speaking against the occupation. . . . Our freedom is a holy gift."

But for some of the poorer of El Arish, things aren't that simple.

"Of course, we are thankful for peace," says one teenager, who has spent two-thirds of his life under occupation. "We are glad the Israelis, especially the settlers, are gone. . . .

"But now that there is peace, why can't we keep what was good under the Israelis, too?"

Meanwhile, Muhammad sifts with beefy, callused hands through the sandy soil of his father, minus the olive trees uprooted by Israeli settlers.

He points from his "liberated" Egyptian hometown of El Arish toward Israel, several desert dunes eastward.

"The Egyptian government has its own interests. The Israeli government has its own interests," he sighs. "But if I had my choice, I'd return to work there tomorrow."

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